It’s instructive to look at the difference between “Twin Peaks: The Return,” and “House of Cards,” and how each works in the current moment.
The most recent season of “House of Cards,” as I wrote last week, is relevant to the point of being unnerving, from its portrait of a manipulated election to its invocation of Chinese trade deals, Syrian chemical weapons attacks, foreign intervention in American elections, visa policy as security theater and suspended press briefings. But for all that it pushes every button in contemporary politics, “House of Cards” does little to speak to the deeper questions that animate us now. It’s an irritant, not a salve; it uses our anxiety rather than engaging with it.
“Twin Peaks: The Return,” by contrast, couldn’t be more divorced from contemporary politics. The show has always existed in a space slightly out of time: It premiered in 1990, but its teenage characters wore saddle shoes and dated boys with motorcycles, while its adult star, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) pushed the 1950s stereotype of the clean-cut, deeply American FBI agent past its logical, cherry-pie conclusion, and into deeply arcane territory. The story Lynch and Frost are telling today is similarly temporally dislocated. Its scenes in New York could be set in the near future, where the plot threads happening in the West take place in dated casinos, cities where lime-green sport coats are reasonable work attire, and bars inhabited by hip chanteuses.
And yet “Twin Peaks: The Return,” explores a dilemma that animates so many of us today: How are we to respond when something profoundly abnormal happens and alters our sense of how reality works?
The show offers a range of starkly different answers to that conundrum, many of them disturbing.
The young man who had been hired to watch a glass portal doubted the possibility of such strangeness, and was horribly murdered as a result. The managers of the casino where Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan), the insurance agent in whose body and mind Agent Cooper is trapped, hits a series of inexplicable jackpots assume that he cheated them and refuse to explore the phenomenon further. Diane (Laura Dern), Agent Cooper’s former secretary, now hardened and traumatized, appears to have been running from strangeness, until she can deny it no longer. The detectives who catch a strange and brutal murder, and the FBI agents who worked with Cooper — most notably FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (Lynch) and Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) respond to strangeness by investigating it, convinced that it can be solved.
The sharpest contrast in how characters approach these oddities lies in the distinction between how Dougie’s wife, Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), reacts when her husband returns home a completely different person, and how the residents of Twin Peaks are responding to new developments in their eerie home town.
Janey-E, along with Dougie’s boss at his insurance firm, responds to Dougie’s radical changes in personality and behavior by minimizing them and exploiting them. Never mind that Dougie seems to have forgotten how to perform basic bodily functions and lost his power of speech. When he returns home with hundreds of thousands of dollars in slot machine winnings, and starts savant-like identifications of discrepancies in insurance claims, Janey-E and his colleagues have every incentive to treat Dougie like he’s a new and improved version of himself, not like he’s been damaged or abused. His new behavior may be eccentric, but the people who refuse to acknowledge that he’s changed are the ones behaving in a less humane way.
By contrast, the people of Twin Peaks have learned to work within the internal logic of the phenomena at work in their own. When Deputy Chief Tommy ‘Hawk’ Hill (Michael Horse) gets a call from Margaret Lanterman (Catherine E. Coulson) with a message from her log, he doesn’t treat her like she’s crazy. He follows her instructions. When he hits dead ends, or the logic he’s pursuing becomes unclear, he persists and approaches his quest from new angles. Ultimately, he finds vital clues to understanding where Agent Cooper is, and what happened to Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).
The people of Twin Peaks don’t simply surrender and allow their lives to be governed by the conflict between the Black and White Lodges. They have agency, and they live their lives. But they are also wise enough to accept what’s in front of their own eyes, to master the dynamic rather than to deny it.
This is not a dichotomy that maps neatly onto contemporary politics, and if it were, “Twin Peaks: The Return” wouldn’t be the transcendent and strange thing that it is. But it does make me think about what sort of person I am, and how I want to respond to the unsteady ground around me.